My grandmother Winona Louise Miller Nichols 1915-2004. She was a delightful little scamp (just like in this picture).Did you ever meet my grandmother Winona? If not, I wish you had the pleasure. She was a pistol. Born in 1915 in Marietta, OK, Winona was part Chickasaw. It was a little bitty part, but her Native American heritage shone through powerfully in her jet-black hair and tan-friendly complexion. If tanning had been popular in her youth - which it wasn't - she would never have burned or freckled. Granny Winona was a sprout compared to the long, lanky type she married and the six offspring they produced. She topped out at around five foot two, the Mighty Mite of the Nichols family. I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with her in my youth and have many fond memories of her.
One of her more memorable legacies to her descendants is resurrected every year around Christmas (not Easter!): the 'Christmas Eve Gift' greeting competition.
Have you heard of this? It's one of these traditions lots of people practice but sort of on the QT - everyone thinks their family is the only group of weirdos on the planet that does it, so they don't talk about it much outside family to avoid appearing, well, weird. Here's how it works, in our family anyway: the goal is to be the first in the family on Christmas Eve to greet other members of the family with the phrase 'Christmas Eve Gift'. My mother remembers when she was very young, her grandmother Tina would play the game in person with Winona and family when she was at their home visiting for the holidays. Each of the six kids was greeted this way as soon as they woke up on that special day. Tina's mother Cinderella lived with Tina in her final years, and she also participated and enjoyed the game.
In my era this has mostly been done by telephone, often at irritatingly early times in the morning. I have had more than a few of these disconcertingly early calls, especially in the days before cell phones and caller ID, when we all jumped to answer the phone rather than let it go to message. ( Shoot, there was no 'message' to go to! ) A pathological sleepyhead, I was one of the slow ones to catch on - I never remembered to get up and call, I never remembered it was Christmas Eve until the caller 'got' me. Suffice to say I was easy prey, the Biggest Loser in this game.
All these years I honestly thought it was a Granny Winona thing and had no idea other people did it, until recently when my brother's attempt at CEG was foiled by cell phone technology and his failure to keep up with current events. He awoke early and made a CEG call, excitedly spouting 'Christmas Eve Gift!' into the ear of the person who answered. Who was a complete stranger currently in possession of a recycled cell phone number. . . My brother was mortified and apologized profusely for the pre-dawn interruption. The groggy recipient said, 'don't worry about it - my girlfriend's family does it, too'.
Now this was news! Like learning there is life on other planets! Turns out this is not exactly a widespread tradition like champagne on New Year's Eve, but plenty of families do partake. Origins appear tied to the days of slavery, when the master often gave a small gift to the servants or slaves first to greet him thusly. This explains why it is more of a southern tradition.
This has been going on in my mom's side of the family for 70+ years. I will admit I have not exactly been a staunch supporter of this game as I always thought it was a little silly and I was always too lazy to get up and make the calls. It's funny how things change when you get older. What once seemed goofy now is now charming and sentimental, especially when I remember the joy my grandmother got from playing this game.
I am honored to perpetuate her family-oriented tradition, especially one that is so light-heartedly cheerful. My cousins will be getting a shock on Christmas Eve. I am the last person they will expect to 'get' them on that early morning call. But not too early . . .